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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Review: The Etymologicon

The Etymologicon was an Audible sale purchase. This is one of those cases where the book and information itself is good, complete with a history of various words and how they came to be, but the presentation lacks structure. In many ways, the book just segues from one word to another in no particular order, so we go from Moby Dick to Starbucks, but without a firm structure to hang all that knowledge it just whizzes by as entertainment and by the end of the book you realize you heard a lot of stories but didn't retain any of them. That makes it not a good use of time.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Review: How To - Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real World Problems

I loved What-If, and wasn't a big fan of Thing Explainer, so I checked out How-To from the library instead of buying it. To my relief, Randall Munro is back on form and How-To is a great read, full of fun musings and intelligent thinking.

In recent months, Bowen's been balking at reading real books, asking to read comic strips instead, and sometimes repeating a book he's already read rather than working on harder material. He even turned his nose up at Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry, which disappointed me as I thought it'd be something that he'd enjoy.

But when I got to the chapter in the book entitled "How to Play Tag", I knew I had him. So I gave it to him at the dinner table (where he would look enviously over his brother's shoulder to watch whatever show grandma was giving him to placate him) and before 3 minutes was over, he'd taken the book off the dinner table and was reading it instead of eating (which is not as impressive as you might think, since Bowen has deprioritized eating below any kind of fun, reasoning that he can always get something to eat as parents won't even deny a child that, but play time is always limited!). Bowen read the entire chapter and then complained that I'd started him on the book at chapter 14, and now he'd have to start over at chapter one and read the entire book!

To my mind, any book that gets your kid to classify reading as "fun-time" is great, and one that's scrupulously accurate, not afraid to use math and equations to explain problems, and demystify the scientific approach to thinking is one to treasure. Highly recommended!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Review: The Intelligence Trap - Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes

I checked out The Intelligence Trap from the library half expecting it to be a let-down. I thought it might turn out to be another rehash of Khaneman's book, but it turned out not to be that, though it did reference his work.

The interesting thing about this book is that it reveals a new area of study called evidence-based wisdom, a lot of the insights in this book are interesting:
  • higher humility scores appear to predict scholastic performance (and on-the-job performance as well) even better than IQ.
  • teams that have too many super-stars/high performers (more than about 30%) actually underperform teams of fewer super-stars.. In other words, you can actually build a team/company with too many super-stars. This is a counter-intuitive result, and is supported by examples in the book with references to literature.
  • once designated a leader, executives frequently become less likely to cooperate, reaching impasses at a far higher rate than less powerful employees lower down in the hierarchy
  • experts take many short cuts to get quick decisions fast. However, in that rush, they can fall prey to motivated reasoning, avoiding taking the hard decision to re-examine their work from first principles.
  • Asian educational systems are actually better at cultivating evidence-based wisdom, emphasizing thoughtfulness over quickness and confidence.
All in all, the book's well worth the time, and certainly for leaders looking to build teams, has important implications for team building. Recommended.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review: The Path to Power

I picked out The Path to Power  on Audible because it seemed like the perfect book to use the audiobook treatment on: it was non-fiction, had an interesting topic I didn't know much about, and Robert Caro's On Power had intrigued me, especially the part about rural electrification.

Wow, when people talk about detail, this book has it. I expected it to be a straightforward biography about Lyndon Johnson, but instead, it meandered left and right (politically and metaphorically), discussing his time as well as introducing several political figures of the period that were lesser known to me, like Sam Rayburn.

The description of the political environment was also critical, as it explains how then (as it is now), the Democrats have always been short of money, and the money has always been on the side of the Republican party.

In terms of coverage of Lyndon Johnson, it's extensive and described how he wasn't much of a new dealer, despite his successful attempts to ride on the coat-tails of the very popular Franklin D. Roosevelt. The section on what it took for Johnson to get elected as a Congressional representative was evocative and descriptive: in many cases he traveled to distant farms and villages to make his case, and that was the difference between him and other candidates.

The book spent a lot of time discussing how Johnson became a "professional son", flattering and ingratiating himself to older men with power, as well as how he came to wield power himself, not through electoral popularity, but by being willing funnel public work projects to contractors he favored and then accepting political donations from them. He even got Roosevelt to help cover up these illegal campaign contributions when the contractor (Brown and Root) was investigated by the IRS. The description of the senatorial campaign of 1941 was also impressive, with Caro discussing which districts had votes that could be bought, and how Johnson lost because he made the mistake of letting his bought votes be called in first, as well as how radio and newspapers were used in the campaign.

Of course, the book also describes his affair with Alice Glass and his poor treatment of his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, again, with chapter long digressions into providing thorough biographies of both women.

The book deserves its Pulitzer prize, but imagine my dismay when I discovered that it's part of a 5-book series, and that Caro is still several years from finishing the series, despite projecting that it would be done in 2013! I've checked out the next book in the series from the library, but I'm not sure I'll get around to finishing that! Nevertheless, the book is recommended.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Trip Report: Emigrant Wilderness

This year's backpacking trip was suddenly changed to the Emigrant Wilderness (so named because it adjuncts the old wagon road into California) because a cold spell was forecast and Arturo decided that it was a good idea to go lower and not freeze ourselves. We hadn't been hiking much this year, so the proposed length of 4.5 miles sounded good to me.

We drove up on Friday night as soon as Bowen's school let up, and navigated horrendous traffic all the way to  the Pinecrest Ranger Station after a burger dinner. It was already late, so we visited the Meadowview Campground, paid $28 for a site, and went to sleep.
The next day, we headed over to the Crabtree trailhead, repacked all our belongings, and headed down the trail. As a last minute decision, I decided to bring the hammock, since it was only an overnight trip and my pack felt light. This turned out to be a good decision. Because we were at a lower elevation, the hiking didn't feel as hard as in previous years, and even Bowen whined a little less than usual.
For it being the weekend the day after labor day, the trail was fairly crowded, with relatively few day hikers but lots of backpackers heading up the trail. Arturo had picked up a permit, saying, "The chances of meeting a ranger are low", but of course we did meet one. Arturo offered to show him the permit but when the ranger found out that the permit was stowed in a hard to reach compartment of the backpack he declined and just said, "I'll trust you." He told us that on the far end of the lake there would be more campsites if the main ones were full.
At Camp Lake, it was time for lunch so we found a spot next to the lake, set up the hammock, and proceeded to eat lunch and enjoy the spot. Bowen felt the water and said it felt warm, not cool, so we had hopes that Bear Lake would be swimmable, even though it would be cooler, since it was significantly bigger.

Bear Lake was only a mile and a half away from Camp Lake, so after lunch, we kept going. Camp Lake was attractive, but there were lots of signs saying: "No camping between trail and Lake", which meant that any camping we did there would be quite far away from water. In retrospect, it would have been a much less crowded campground, with better swimming, but that's only in retrospect.
At Bear Lake, we found that all the spots near the trail was taken, but Arturo hiked around and found a big area that would have been suitable for a group three times our size. We hurriedly took it, pitching tents and putting up the hammock to indicate the boundaries of our spot. None too soon, for another big family came by and eyed our campsite jealously, but moved on and took a spot further along the lake. After all that we gathered firewood for the night's campfire, which was quite an effort since the area was quite denuded of dead wood!
Then it was swimming time, and sure enough, the lake while cold, wasn't too cold to swim in. It was fun and felt fresh, since we hadn't had showers the day before. We then made dinner and watched the sunset. The clouds that had appeared earlier while swimming had gone away, leaving us a crystal clear sky. Arturo told us this was normal in the Sierra during low pressure --- there's not enough moisture during the summer for the clouds to stick! Arturo taught Bowen how to create sparks to start a fire using steel and magnesium. To our relief, the cold spell seemed to have killed off the mosquitoes, and I got away without a single bite.
The purpose of a campfire, of course, is to roast marshmallows and make smores. Bowen ate 10 marshmallows, and then we called it a night.

The next morning, we ate a quick breakfast and packed. It had been cold and my tent had significant bits of condensation, so I had to take it down and move it into the sun so it would dry, but we said goodbye to Bear Lake and headed back to Camp Lake.
At Camp Lake, Bowen was hungry, having ate none of his oatmeal or even drank his apple cider at breakfast, so we setup the hammock, and ate the rest of the lunch we'd brought with us. We were definitely getting a fair bit of use out of the hammock (Arturo said he spent some time in it last night star-gazing as well), so I was glad I paid the weight penalty and brought it! From there, it was less than 2 hours from the trailhead, and we were done! 

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Review: Replay

Replay is Ken Grimwood's novel that was the inspiration for Groundhog day. Well, OK, it's not, but it's what Groundhog day would have been if it was written by an intelligent thinking person. For instance, one of my pet peeves about Groundhog day was that the protagonist never considers doing anything that a smart person would do to break his enchantment (e.g., staying up past midnight). By contrast, while reading Grimwood's novel you get the impression that his protagonists would have tried everything.

The premise of the novel is what if you got to relive your life again, but with all the experience acquired from actually living it, including knowledge of future events, past mistakes, etc. And what if you got a chance to do it again and again?

With a multiple decade span, Grimwood's protagonists try everything, from winning horse races, betting on stocks, hiring Spielberg/Lucas to make movies, etc. The drawbacks of all these opportunities are also presented in focus. The novel even does a good job of ensuring that there's a reasonable ending, though of course, no reasonable explanation of why the protagonists are the only people to get a chance to re-live life that way is posited (or explained). All the actions are drawn to their logical conclusions, and I was happy with the way the novel ended.

Recommended, and thanks to Terence Chua for the recommendation!

Monday, October 07, 2019

Review: Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry

I checked Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry out from the library hoping that Bowen would read it, but Bowen turned his nose up at it after reading one chapter. To my surprise, I found myself sucked into it and just finished reading it in a couple of days.

The book does a fantastic job of introducing the Big Bang Theory, the 4 fundamental forces, and Hubble expansion, relativity, and myriad other topics without either talking down to the reader or resorting to equations and dense mathematics. In some cases, like relativity or quantum mechanics, the topic is mentioned as relevant and the reader is left to do more reading and research if interested, but the subject isn't beaten to death.

The book's a short quick read, and I hope to get Bowen to give it another chance one day. Recommended.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Review: The Witcher Omnibus

I was browsing Hoopla and found The Witcher, which intrigued me, since it apparently told new and different stories and weren't based on the novels or the video game.

The book itself is split into 5 different unrelated stories with no transition between them --- you can read all the stories out of order as there's no apparent chronology linking them. In fact, in one of the stories Geralt loses both his swords, and there's no story that explains how he gets them back.

One of the stories is a one shot, but two of them are fairly long, involving plot twists that are very similar to those found in the novel or the video game, which I enjoyed. On the other hand, the other stories seem a little more straightforward, and in all but one of the stories, the art is lackluster.

I came away from the graphic novel thinking that it was good and not a waste of time, but thinking that the video game was by far the best version of all the stories.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Review: Pamu Slide Wireless Headset

My biggest issue with the Taotronics headset was that while the sound was fine, the headset didn't work very well for phone calls, with 30% of people complaining that I sounded muddy. Even worse, the device took up to 9 seconds to pair with the phone when taken out of its case, which makes them less useful for receiving phone calls than I had hoped. Pamu Slide's indiegogo page indicated that they'd been shipping product for quite some time, and had sold quite a number of units, meaning that whether the product sucked, you would at least get something for the money. They seem to be running a permanent indiegogo campaign, where even after reaching production, they're using the crowd-funding website as a sales channel.

They're currently charging $80 + shipping for a pair, but when I made the purchase it was $50 + shipping. The reviews on the web seemed reasonable, so I ordered a pair. The thing with indiegogo as a platform is that once you commit it's hard to back out and difficult to get refunds, and at the current price, they're not priced any better than any number of competitors on Amazon, so I wouldn't recommend you try these.

At $50, the device has a few advantages compared to the Taotronics unit. First, it charges using USB-C. Secondly, the case is much less prone to flipping open accidentally and dumping out the ear buds. (The Taotronics does so with impunity). Third, no one has ever complained about phone calls made using the unit. Fourthly, the battery life is supposedly longer, but that wasn't an issue since I don't tend to have these types of earbuds in my ear for more than half an hour at a time anyway. The case's battery lasts pretty much forever, and I don't have to charge the case more than once a month. Finally, the latency between pulling out the headphones and connecting to the phone is about 3s, which means that it's actually useful for receiving calls. In extended use, I discovered that after about 30-40 minutes of use the unit would power-off and reboot! This is no big deal for me, since I don't tend to use these ear buds for more than 30 minutes at a time, but it could be a deal breaker for many, especially at the $80 price point. The unit is also heavier than the Taotronics.

Disappointingly enough, the unit isn't better about dropped signal than the Taotronics, and it doesn't sound any louder. In single-earbud mode, it might actually be softer! The fit feels more secure, and the device comes with 6 extra pairs of differently sized buds so you can find an optimum fit. One problem which happens with the Pamu but never happens with the Taotronics is that occasionally the device would hit a software snag and shut itself down for no apparent reason. Despite that, I found myself leaning towards the Pamu slide for day to day use, reserving the Taotronics unit for trips where I needed both the powerbank and headset features.

All in all, at about $50 or less, I think these are a reasonable upgrade over the Taotronics. But at the current asking price of $80, I'd pass on them. They're better, but not that much better.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Review: Logtech MX Ergo Mouse

I've been quite happy with my old Logitech M570 trackball for years. It's frequently on sale for $20 or less, and has been reliable, though obviously nothing can withstand Boen picking it up and throwing it hard enough on the floor to smash into teeny little bits.

The purchase of the XPS 13, however, made the M570 more inconvenient to use: that machine has no USB-A slots! While Dell thankfully provided a dongle, it definitely made switching between machines more of a hassle than it had to be, so when Boen broke one of the M570s and it was time for a replacement I picked up the MX Ergo Mouse instead.

The device when it cames, comes with a steel plate so you can tilt the mouse at 20 degrees or zero, a base that has provides 30 degrees of tilt, and a unifying receiver. I plugged the receiver onto my desktop and was almost immediately in business, no pairing or software installation needed. I then pushed the selector switch, and paired it with the XPS 13. Not only did it pair with the XPS almost immediately, flipping between the two machines was near instantaneous. The unifying receiver on the desktop allowed me to bypass the cheap bluetooth dongle that I still haven't found a good replacement for.

You can install software for it: it's called logitech options. The intended use case is to let you copy/paste between computers, or line up two machines and move the mouse from one to the other to switch. (If you have a logitech keyboard, which I don't, switching the mouse moves the keyboard over as well) The software works, but isn't more convenient than just pushing the button on the mouse.

As for the rest of it, it's a well functioning trackball. It has a rechargeable battery so I don't have to replace AA batteries like on the M570, but on the other hand, the need to replace the M570's batteries every couple of years or so hasn't been a big bother, so that part's a wash. Being able to not have to deal with dongles on the laptop, however, is a big win all around. Recommended!

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Review: Kochland

Kochland is Christopher Leonard's history of Koch Industries, and how it became not just a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, but also a political heavy weight, with deep influence on not just by defeating Democratic initiatives such as cap-and-trade for carbon, but also Republican initiatives that you might or might not have heard about because they were defeated before even being publicly debated.

Before I read the book, I thought that the main reason Americans didn't vote for a greener lifestyle or better working conditions (such as longer mandated vacations, etc) was because they were either too uneducated, selfish, or simply in-thrall with religion to understand the issues involved, even though many of them were really simple (seriously? oppose a mandated family leave policy? or do away with for-profit health insurance companies?). To some extent I think that, still, but now I know that's not the entire story.

The Koch brothers were MIT trained. What that meant was that all their malice and avarice had purpose, and was guided by an engineer's ability to optimize their goals in ways that less competent evil people could have done. They also started with a fairly substantial legacy left by their father, Fred Koch, who was also a right wing libertarian. The author does a very good job of balancing the coverage of early Koch industries as being driven by profits above all else (including a lack of compunction when it comes to polluting the environment) before Charles Koch came to the conclusion that compliance with the law not only made business sense in terms of avoiding punitive fines, but also ensured that the legal system didn't have an excuse to investigate him so he could maintain his privacy.

I cam away from this book not only with a better understanding of how Koch Industries changed the political landscape until attempting to reduce greenhouse emissions is considered anathema to the Republican party, but also a strong sense that if there was any justice at all, the entire company and all its executives should be convicted of crimes against humanity. Not that I'm about to hold my breath --- I read with dismay of passage after passage describing how chillingly competent the Koch political operations are, and the surprisingly little amount of money it takes to buy American politicians.

If you want to understand the modern political landscape (as well as what's likely to happen after the 2020 elections), this book is invaluable. And you know what, when my sons start to blame me for what are sure to be more horrifically hot summers to come in future years and decades, I'll want to have a copy of this book handy to give to them and show them that there was no way I could have stopped this evil juggernaut from screwing them over.

The one thing the jumps out at me is that philanthropists like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have made a fundamental strategic area in where they've put their money: it does no good to save millions in Africa from malaria when you've got the Koch brothers putting their money and leveraging it and turning the USA away from solutions to the climate change that is already causing mass migration and will surely kill many more in the future. It's quite clear to me that Koch has gotten a huge ROI on their investment in their political infrastructure, and now that this book is in public hands, I wouldn't be surprised to see more wealthy people join them.

You should stop whatever you're doing and read this book. That's how important it is.
In 2007, for example, Koch Industries quietly funded the work of a Democratic-leaning think tank called Third Way. The think tank promoted “New Democrat” policies such as those embraced by Bill Clinton: neoliberal policies that sought to combine New Deal goals with free-market methods. Lobbyists at Koch’s office knew that Third Way’s economic study program supported free-trade policies such as NAFTA. Such trade policies were under attack in 2007 because they did not deliver the economic benefits that they had promised to huge swaths of the American population. The textile industry of South Carolina, for example, was decimated by trade agreements, such as NAFTA. This was stoking opposition to such trade agreements among both Democratic and Republican politicians. Koch Industries supported free-trade agreements and wanted to ensure the passage of future trade deals, while blocking any reversal of existing deals. The possibility of any trade war was dangerous for Koch Industries not just because the company had extensive business holdings around the world. To take one specific but very high-stakes example: Koch’s Pine Bend refinery, still a major profit center for the company, was deeply dependent on oil imports from Canada. Any trade disputes ignited by renegotiating NAFTA could dramatically hurt Koch’s profitability. (Kindle Loc 7343)
 ExxonMobil also funded third-party groups that sought to raise doubts about the science behind climate change and to fight the cap-and-trade bill. But Greenpeace, the environmental activist group that fought hard to limit air pollution, found that Koch Industries fought to undermine the scientific consensus around climate change for longer, and more fiercely, than even Exxon. A 2010 Greenpeace analysis of spending on climate-denial groups between 2005 and 2008 found that Koch Industries and its affiliates spent $24.9 million to support such groups, almost triple Exxon’s $8.9 million in spending.V And Koch was more uncompromising than Exxon, whose lobbyists made it known that Exxon might support some sort of carbon emissions plan, such as a carbon tax. (Kindle Loc 7407)
 Of the eighty-five newly elected Republicans who arrived in Washington, seventy-six had signed Americans for Prosperity’s carbon pledge, vowing they would never support a federal climate bill that added to the government’s tax revenue. Of those seventy-six members of Congress, fifty-seven of the signees had received campaign contributions from Koch Industries’ PAC, according to an analysis by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. Koch Industries had terminally stalled the Waxman-Markey bill in the Senate, and now it had salted the earth behind it, ensuring that a new climate change bill would never grow. (Kinde Loc 7502)